Thursday, January 28, 2010

All Kinds of Folk: A Great Weekend of Music

More on the elevating power of art--

I went to an amazing concert last weekend.  The World Folk Music Association (WFMA) held its 24th annual Benefit Concert Weekend at the marvelous Birchmere in Alexandria, Virginia, and the theme this year was The Women of Folk Music.   The Birch was full of faithful fans of the folk genre and fans of some of the many award-winning artists, but did anyone go away not having become fans of them all?  Not me! And I only made it to the Saturday night show, while many folkies were there for both nights.

Photo of Finale

It was a privilege to hear Carolyn Hester, an early 60s classic Greenwich Village folksinger and balladeer (homegrown in the heart of Texas), who in 1964 was on the cover of The Saturday Evening Post for their “Folk Music Fad” story. (Joke’s on them—folk’s proved to be no fad!)  She had the then-unknown 19-year-old Bob Dylan play on one of her albums, her producer snapped him up for the label and, as they say, the rest is history. Carolyn’s long white hair flowed just as beautifully as her long blonde hair used to.

Two trios made it a lively night.  I’d heard Hot Soup before and love their acoustic action, especially all the ceramic drums Jennie Avila brought. Herdman, Hills & Mangsen first recorded as a trio in 1990 and have all done solo projects, so this was a reunion much welcomed by the crowd.   There is something about the power of harmony that just lifts the soul…

I was especially wowed by four acts.  I had heard LEA perform before, but her rendition of "Follow the Drinking Gourd," an old spiritual guiding slaves to use the Underground Railroad, gave me chills, and everyone loved the songs she had written, her music now much inspired by her two young children, as well as designed to inspire them.

The Nields were the find of the night for me.  Western Massachusetts-based Nerissa and Katryna Nields are offspring of folkie parents who surely must be proud of their daughters and what they have done with the form.  I loved both of them but oh my god, Katryna had such presence and such projection, really belting it out on songs like “When I’m Here,” written by Nerissa, and “Ain’t That Good News” by soul singer Sam Cooke. 

Touring coffeehouses and festivals since 1991, they’re now also moms who have recently released a kids CD, so I was happy to meet them afterwards and grab a copy for review in Washington Parent, since they’re coming back here in April to Jammin’ Java, where they’ll do an afternoon kids’ show and an evening adult show I don’t want to miss.  

SONiA, formerly of disappear fear, is a Baltimore-based phenom who really rocked the evening. Her most haunting performance was "By My Silence," based on the poem by Pastor Martin Niemoller about the Holocaust.  SONiA sings and composes in English, Spanish, Hebrew and Arabic as evidenced by songs she performed from her CD, "tango”.  She just won the OutMusic Award for Outstanding International Song 2009 for her song “Shorashim,” and has won the GLAAD Award for best album, a distinction she shares with the likes of Elton John. And her tours of the Middle East have led to the creation of a nonprofit, Guitars for Peace, that donates guitars and other musical instruments to children in war-torn countries (particularly, but not limited to, the Middle East).

Doris Justis was a revelation, her sweet sopranos soaring in her duo performance with Sean McGhee, who she’s performed with for 25 years in Side by Side. 

A tribute to the late, beloved Irish folk musician Liam Clancy featured Grace Griffith and Lynn Hollyfield. Grace’s speaking voice is just as mellifluous as her singing voice, a pleasure to listen to.   The performance was particularly inspiring knowing Grace has Parkinson ’s disease, barely noticeable to anyone in the audience not aware of it, and not diminishing her voice or stage presence a whit.  (There’s a PD Notebook on Grace’s website,, for those interested in learning more about how she faces this challenge.)

I am so happy to have reconnected years ago to my folkie roots.  I went from sitting in the basement of musician friends’ homes and other gathering places in high school in New England, singing along as they played Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young songs on acoustic guitar, to sitting in the basement at house concerts in Maryland surrounded by old hippies, and young folk enthusiasts.  I am reminded that folk music is not only beautiful to listen to, it is a voice of protest, for social justice and about creating peace in our world.  And tonight, we were there again for the music, and for the cause.

For more on women singers/songwriters, check out my profile “These Moms Make Music,” on LEA, Lori Kelley and Laura Baron, which appeared in the January 2010 issue of Washington Parent magazine.

P.S. Kudos to my pal Shelley Caplan, formally recognized in the concert program as “Green Room Guru” for her tireless catering of all that great food for musicians at this and other folk music events. 

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Websites and Other Firsts

My mother cracks me up.  After I emailed her to take a peek at my new website and first “soft-launch” blogging, she emailed me her feedback with the email subject line:  “Baby’s First Website.” I love it, both for what it says about my 81-year-old mom’s still creative mind and quick wit (which I like to think I’ve inherited some of), and for how true it is that our kids have milestones all their lives and will always be our “babies.”

Hmm…is this a business idea?  Most of those so-called “baby books” you buy to give as baby shower gifts end by the time the kid goes off to college, at the latest.  Wouldn’t it make sense to integrate a parent’s lifelong love and true experience of their child’s life into something more substantial?  A fat binder, perhaps, rather than a bound baby book.  With space for the other firsts in a child’s life.  The Good, the Bad and the Keep You Up at Night.

In addition to Baby’s First Website, a few suggestions for labeled entry sections, in no particular order:

Baby’s First Crush

Baby’s First Used Car

Baby's First Birth Control (hopefully before...)

Baby’s First Time

Baby’s First College Application Essay

Baby’s First FAFSA

Baby’s First Buzz

Baby’s First Heartbreak

Baby’s First Roach-Infested Apartment

Baby’s First Job

Baby’s First Speeding Ticket

Baby’s BFFs

Baby’s First Pet They Had to Walk and Poop-Scoop after Themselves

Baby’s First Fender Bender

Baby’s First Hair Coloring

Baby’s First Bad Break-up

Baby’s First STD

Baby’s First Gray Hair

Baby’s First Marriage

Baby’s First Divorce

Baby’s First Career Disappointment

Baby’s First Baby

Baby’s First Hot Flash

Baby’s First Midlife Crisis

Baby’s First Joint Replacement

Well, you get the picture.  And speaking of pictures, thanks to cameras in phones, camcorders and YouTube, so many more of these events will be captured in photos or video for posterity than you had ever—feared. What mother or father wouldn’t enjoy looking at this keepsake of parenting reality, pulling it out as they were in their golden years?  Best of all, they could use it to extort money from their children in exchange for not showing all the good bits to the grandkids…

Please feel free to add your own ideas for entries!

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

On the Wings of Art

The winter is dark and cold and I am working too hard, right through the holidays.  But tonight I shut off my computer early and give myself a breather.

I am sitting in my recliner.  It is midnight.  I am reading a memoir that is alternately bringing tears to my eyes and making me laugh out loud. 

I am watching the Kennedy Center Honors on DVR.  I turn it on thinking there might be a couple of good moments and it will be background music to my reading.  Instead, it has pulled me away from my reading, and it is making my heart sing.  First the tribute to Robert De Niro, with clips from his distinguished body of work. Later on to honoree Dave Brubeck--and it’s his 79th birthday!  Band after band is revealed onstage playing his music.  He is watching, delighted, from the balcony, and then another band is revealed, and it’s his four sons; he is surprised and the pure elation on his face brings tears to my eyes again. I’m digging Barack Obama’s head bopping to the beat too. 

I suddenly see myself as I sit here.  Yes, I am wearing a hat.  In my living room.  It is very cold outside and very cold inside, because no matter how high I turn the heat up, the wall of windows in my living room that I can’t afford to replace with fancy energy-saving ones and the crappily designed duct system in this townhouse I love betray me.  The hat is several shades of purple and teal and it is very soft.  It sits comically atop my head, not pulled down properly, because I have such a bad headache that even the slight pressure of my hat hurts. I figure some of my body heat will escape through my head but not all of it.   (This is an example of my “secret single behavior,” a delicious term I first heard come out of the mouth of Carrie Bradshaw on “Sex and the City.”)
The hat stays on after my hard won “reverie au recliner” began and was almost immediately  interrupted by my boy, who I love to bits, popping upstairs and asking for a ride to the Metro.  For a fraction of a moment I balk at going out into the cold (or at moving at all, for that matter).  But my boy, though 21, with his own car,  is off to a bar with a friend,  getting a  ride back with another designated driver friend, and how can I refuse this eminently sensible plan which will return him home safely to me?  We pick up his friend down the street, joking around as we drive to the Metro, and as they get out I am laughing and it feels so good, like when he was younger, except they are now taller and me and do not reek of motley colognes like they did in middle school.  I get to be a mom hands-on again for these few precious weeks. 

This reading a great book, watching TV that is an example of what TV should be (plus I get to fast-forward through the pharmaceutical commercials), listening to fine music and praising great artists, quality time with my son, this is what feeds the soul, sparks my creativity, makes my heart soar.  And only hours earlier I was feeling overwhelmed, on the verge of weeping with despair, mired in my varied personal problems and the seemingly endless woes of the world around me.  And then Caroline Kennedy starts the Kennedy Center Honors ceremony quoting her father on the importance of art, and grace, and beauty.  Art, and grace, and beauty, which elevate us to a place where we can put our problems aside.
The whole hall is on its feet now, rocking and clapping as Sting performs Springsteen’s anthem, “The Rising.”  For these few hours, the sun breaks through the harsh winter night.   

“But art? It is pure and intense play...  it is like pure and intense life” 
                                                       (Antonio Machado)

New Year's Resolutions for Not-So-Perfect Parents

(Bear with me.  This was originally posted 1/5/10 as my first blog post at my website, but I quickly tired of the blog features on the DIY site-builder...)

I thought I'd take a crack at my first "soft launch" blogging with a reprise of an article I wrote for Washington Parent magazine more than a decade ago when my son Sammy was 10. That was back when I was still in the messy thick of daily, hands-on parenting (as opposed to today's messy thick of trying for less frequent, hands-off parenting of a college student). I was an imperfect parent then and I'm still an imperfect parent now...just in an older, wiser way, of course.

No one is perfect, and we parents are no exception. So don't even try to be perfect.  Cut yourself some slack.  Just try to be good enough, and know that your little flowers will blossom even with the occasional dry day, cloudy week, or nick with the lawnmower. You're both more resilient than you think.  Give these ten resolutions a try, but don’t worry, you’re not being graded.

1.  FIRST THINGS FIRST.  Steven Covey wasn't the first wise person to tell us this, but it was the first time many of us really got it.   For me it was that story he tells about trying to put rocks into a glass jar.  If you put all the gravel and the little rocks in first, you may find you can't fit the big rocks in at the end.  So put in the big rocks first.  For me this means human relations come first.  Not schedules, not your favorite show on TV, not the house or yardwork that hasn't been done.  There's always time for a kind word and personal attention and presence to your children.  If you think there's not, you're not putting the big rocks first.  You'll just make yourself and your children crazy rushing all the time--so slow down to the speed of love.

2.  YOU FIRST!  Just as financial planners recommend you "pay yourself first" to put part of each paycheck aside for savings, so you should "schedule yourself first."  Whether it's trips to the gym or your writing group, lunch with a girlfriend or a poker game with the guys, it's not just okay, it's a must that you plan time for yourself, or you may never get it! I will never forget what my friend Shelley said to me one frazzled time when I didn't feel like a "good enough" mom.  (She also brought me chocolate chip cookies, a cure-all even for imperfect parenting.)  "It's like what the flight attendants tell you before you take off--'parents, place your own oxygen mask on first before assisting your child.'"  Well, being a mom is just like that, she said:  "you've got to put on your own oxygen mask first" by taking care of yourself so you can take care of your kids.

3.  MIND YOUR MANNERS.  Leave the efficiency expert, superwoman/superman, manager at work.  Your relations at home should reflect the value system of your family, not a business.  Your interaction and communications should be governed by kindness and compassion and mutual respect, not hierarchy, not flow-charts, not precise schedules on electronic planners.  Authors Don and Jean Ellium call this “FamilyMind.”  So leave “WorkMind” at the office and use your commute home (or, if you’re like me, down the stairs from your home office) to slip into “FamilyMind” instead.

4.  HUMOR ME.  You know what I mean here, right?  Sometimes you've just got to laugh or you'll cry.  Humor is hands down the best parenting tool we have at our disposal.  So use it liberally and teach your kids to laugh along with you.  A sense of humor and perspective is also one of the most valuable life skills we can pass along to them.

5.  TIME OUT.  Time outs are good for your kids and for you.  For you, it's important to step back from an explosive situation.  Nothing like a good cry, a good scream (preferably in a closet out of your child's hearing), a good headful of cold air outside the door, a good vicious pillow fluffing, or just plain a few seconds to count to ten, or twenty, for bad vibes to dissipate or problems to shrink to size.  Give your kids the space for a time out when needed, and let them know sometimes you need one too.

6.  DON'T SWEAT THE SMALL STUFF.  Yeah, it's all small stuff, but boy can it build up fast!  Take a deep breath and focus on the one problem that's right in front of you now. Don't universalize ("you never pick up your room).  Putting yourself in your child's shoes can also show you why something that means one thing to you may mean something altogether different (or nothing at all) to them.  Adjust your approach accordingly.

7.  KNOW "NO" IS NOT A FOUR LETTER WORD.  Repeat after me:  "Limits are good. Limits are good."  Now, I have to tell you, I am notoriously bad at this limits business, but even I've got to admit, it really works.  Maybe it was growing up in the Age of Aquarius, but for ages I really believed that my job was to give my child anything he wanted and let him do anything he pleased as long as he wasn't hurting anyone. (Okay, so laugh at me.)  Except what he wants isn't the point.  I'm the parent, so at least for a few more years, I've got to decide what he 
needs, and make sure he gets it, or at least has opportunities to.  Just as you are not the center of the universe, neither is your child. And a family isn't quite a democracy.  More like a benevolent dictatorship.  Listen to your kids, respect your kids, love your kids, but remember you're the grown-up (and don't abuse the privilege).  Even animal parents give their young lessons before they just let them go tumbling out of the nest, or lurching out of the cave or stable! Our kids need to learn what there is in the world, what they need and want, how to get it, and who out there is going to share it with them--hopefully, peacefully. 

8.  WALK THE WALK.  I remember how good it felt to walk my baby around the neighborhood.  Just because our darlings are no longer in strollers doesn't mean we can't take walks together.  It's good exercise and a bad-mood buster for both adults and kids.  A family walk can be a nice ritual after dinner, or on a weekend morning after breakfast.  Or maybe it's a time for just mother and son or father and daughter to get some time together away from the rest of the gang.  It's a time for talking and laughing, for appreciating nature in your neighborhood or the rhythm of the city streets.  Even if your child is reluctant at first, see if he or she doesn't open up in the silence of the walk--if not, then share the silence in a walking meditation!  

9.  LISTEN TO YOURSELF.  Wow, that usually stops me in my tracks if I'm on a tear, nagging, or wrangling back and forth on something.  Nine times out of ten in an unproductive dispute I'm sounding like a truculent nine-year old myself, whining with the best of them.  A calm, firm response, that most effective but elusive of parenting approaches, always gets you further.  Kids haven't got the emotional intelligence tools yet to apply rational thinking and compassion to an explosive situation, but you do!  So you may snap now and then.  Parents aren't perfect, remember?  Keep trying.  

10.  GIVE THANKS.  What goes around comes around, so say "thank you" to your own parents, whether they're alive or dead.  Goodness knows children are a bunch of ingrates, however loveable.  But don't bother keeping score, because however much you give they're going to make you think it's not enough.  Just rearranged your schedule to accommodate their game?  Just spent your bonus money on clothes for them?  Just stayed up half the night baking brownies for a PTA fundraiser or spent your only day off helping with a science project?  Doesn't count.  Nope.  "But Mom, but Dad, I wanna…" will always be the next words out of their mouths.  But that's just how it is, and now that you know how hard it is, and how much of themselves your parents gave to you, say "Thank you."  You can cross your fingers some day your adult children will be thanking you--but don't hold your breath, and love them today anyway.